While Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry are gambling on new high-definition video formats and televisions, there may not be enough room in the Net's pipes or in the servers offering video streams to make HD videos, which can require twice as much broadband capacity as traditional videos, a regular part of the Internet viewing experience.
While that's hardly the end of the world for a site like YouTube.com, which is more concerned with streaming user-created content than anything coming out of Hollywood, it does present a dilemma for an organization like Major League Baseball's MLB.com , which already has more than 800,000 subscribers regularly watching games over the Net.
For now, the Internet-viewing public will have to be satisfied with watching live sporting and news events, or homemade movies presented on streaming sites like YouTube in formats offering slightly grainy images and sometimes-jerky motion. In fact, every industry expert interviewed for this story said that the way things stand now there just isn't enough bandwidth going into the home to stream the more expansive HD video.
"HD files tend to be too large to easily stream or download over typical American broadband connections," said Joe Laszlo, senior broadband analyst for Jupiter Research. "Our 1.5 megabyte connections are great for music, OK for lower-quality video but fairly unacceptable for HD video...I don't think we'll see a lot of HD content."
The typical Internet connection is 2 to 3 megabits per second, says Laszlo. The minimum needed to stream HD-quality video is 5mbps. Laszlo added that even if bandwidth were to be increased, computers with lower graphics processing power may be unable to display the richer details that HD provides.
That could mean a missed opportunity. In a report released Wednesday, the research firm IDC predicted Web video will generate $1.7 billion in annual sales by 2010, a 750 percent jump from sales this year. "Internet video services are on the brink of becoming a mainstream phenomenon in the United States," IDC said in the report.
The HD streaming problem is simple to understand. Imagine a pipe with liquid running through it. There is only so much room inside the pipe. In the case of broadband, the liquid is bits of information. The more video streaming over the Net, the more that pipe gets filled up--particularly as the pipe narrows on the final leg into the home.
In part, the "clogged pipe" issue is used by big telecommunications companies as they argue for some sort of tiered structure that would allow them to betteron their networks. Internet companies, on the other hand, argue that so-called Net neutrality laws are needed to ensure that all Internet traffic is treated equally.
"There's no denying it," says Michel Billard, president of Itiva, which is working on improving broadband efficiency. "As more video-on-demand companies continue to gobble up bandwidth, there isn't going to be enough to go around."Few companies are more interested in improving Net video quality than Major League Baseball. The league has been a trendsetter in distributing live events over the Net. Critics showered praise on MLB's technicians for handling the live feeds of this year's NCAA basketball tournament games to more than 268,000 viewers.
Justin Shaffer, MLB.com's chief architect, is more optimistic than many insiders regarding when the Net may be ready for HD.
"Things are really starting to come around," Shaffer said. "Clearly there needs to be upgrades in bandwidth, but there's definitely reason to be encouraged."
He said several companies are working on technology that would allow computers in close proximity to each other to share data. Instead of streaming the same images to multiple people, such technology would send the information once to a hub computer and then use that to distribute it to others.
HD doesn't present as much of a problem to sites such as do CinemaNow and Movielink, which recently unveiled plans to offer downloadable movie services. Apple Computer and Amazon.com are also exploring the possibility of distributing films over the Net, according to a report this month in the New York Times.
Akimbo Systems, which distributes video content over the Web, downloads material that doesn't have to be watched live. Users who leave their computer running can get feeds from Akimbo regardless of any traffic jams on the Web. Once the film or TV content is finished downloading, the viewing will be excellent because the information is already on the user's hard drive.
"You have to get away from the streaming model to distribute high definition," said Josh Goldman, CEO of Akimbo Systems. "It's best to do it as a download."
But even with downloads, there's a big size difference. The movie trailer for "Walk the Line," available on Apple's QuickTime site, for example, has a standard and high-definition offering. The file size for standard definition is 36 megabytes and the high definition is 93 megabytes. The HD version packs more than twice the amount of information than the standard.
Will lower quality stymie the nascent Internet video market?
"If HD were to hit, it wouldn't really affect YouTube," said Julie Supan, the company's spokeswoman. "Our service focuses on short format, fast delivery and lower-quality video content uploaded from devices. Our service is more about the entertainment quality of video content versus the 'resolution' of the content."
Josh Martin, an IDC analyst, echoed Supan's comments. He said sites like Ifilm, Atom Entertainment and YouTube draw audiences because of the unique entertainment they offer. Martin uses as an example a clip that has crisscrossed the Internet recently of an autistic high-school basketball player who became a national star by hitting six three-point shots in a game.
"Is that story less compelling because it's not high definition?" Martin said. "I don't think so."